I have been coaching on the Marryat Chamber Music autumn course, which ended last night with a wonderful concert (see photo). I find it immensely cheering that such talented, accomplished young musicians obviously love chamber music so much and are determined to make it a major part of their lives.
The four participating groups between them had come up with a great programme – the Schumann piano quartet, the Debussy trio for flute, viola and harp, Beethoven’s ‘Archduke’ Trio, and the Schubert C major string quintet. (We had to cut a few movements here and there so that the audience wasn’t there until midnight.) I have never before had the chance to coach the Schubert string quintet, and found it tremendous fun to be able to discuss questions of tempo and character with the players.
As an audience member I often find myself wondering why the musicians do certain things – how they arrived at the decision to play the slow movement so slowly, for example. I often wonder if it’s primarily the respect that players feel for an iconic work which leads them (mistakenly in my view) to equate extreme slowness with seriousness. In fact, very slow tempi are sometimes counter-productive because they focus everyone’s minds on the passing details, instead of making them aware of a larger pulse in which those details are naturally enfolded.
One of the players said an interesting thing : ‘When I’m not playing and I’m just listening to the others, it seems too slow. But when I’m playing myself, it doesn’t seem too slow.’ In a nutshell, this sums up a problem on which we musicians are always struggling to get some perspective. Tempo often seems different if you are making the music, because you’re so physically involved and because the instrument is resonating under your ear. Yet one has to remember that the composer, when imagining the perfect tempo, was probably more in the position of a listener than a performer.
I often find it helpful to remember Sandor Vegh saying, ‘I like the phrase ‘slow movement’. Not just slow, but movement! How beautiful!’